Bradenton officials hotly debate $10.5M offer for Evers Reservoir property

BRADENTON -- An update on the potential sale of more than 200 acres next to the Bill Evers Reservoir was expected to appear on Wednesday's agenda.

It did not.

That didn't stop city officials from closing and reopening a public meeting, debating the $10.5 million contract offer, and stepping in and out of a potential Sunshine in Government Law violation, leading tempers to flare with one city councilman leaving the meeting.

In June, the city voted to negotiate with WCI Communities of Bonita Springs. Its $10.5 million offer was mid-range from two other developers vying for the property.

City officials said they felt WCI's conceptual plan was far less intensive at 350 units compared with its competitors proposing more than 600.

WCI's bid was about $1.5 million less than the highest bidder, but the city felt the less-intensive plan had the potential to make more money per unit and was the best way to go.

Not every city official agreed.

Ward 1 City Councilman Gene Gallo voted against negotiating with WCI, saying the city should get top dollar. Gallo reiterated his position Wednesday night and initially offered a motion to reject WCI's final contract offer.

"Evers came in way under value to me and we should be reconsidering," said Gallo in moving to reject the offer and reopen bidding.

Gallo's motion prompted concern from other council members the city was taking action on a matter of public interest that was not on the agenda. A Florida Attorney General's opinion advises a government entity should not take action on such matters for hastily added agenda items as the city did last year for the Villages at Riverwalk development agreement. To take such action on a nonagenda item draws even closer to a violation of the Sunshine in the Government Law.

Ward 5 Councilman Harold Byrd Jr. was the first to react, recommending the council move the WCI contract offer to a Nov. 4 workshop and note it as a special meeting. "It wasn't on the agenda and the public didn't know about this," said Byrd. "I don't like doing things this way with items that are not on the agenda."

Gallo said it's not the public's decision to make.

"What difference does it make?" Gallo asked. "We've been paddling this thing around for months. The public is not going to deal with this, we are."

Byrd cited the principal of the action while recalling the heat city council took for its hasty action with Villages at Riverwalk. Ward 3 Councilman Patrick Roff agreed.

"In nine years of sitting on this council, I've never seen a meeting get closed and reopened to take action on a $10.5 million deal that isn't on the agenda," he said. "I'm in real uncomfortable waters here."

Gallo rescinded his motion, said Roff was acting like a 3-year-old and left the meeting. He did not return.

Vice Mayor Gene Brown agreed with his colleagues in saying the integrity of the board should never be put in a position to be questioned.

No action was taken and a consensus was reached to move the contract discussion to Nov. 4 where the city can legally discuss and vote on the matter with proper public notice.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.